Frames /sing

kvond

Keller’s “Water” and Anarchic Hand Syndrome

The Mystery of Language

Above is the pump at which Helen Keller learned her first word, “water” (signed). The account of which is here:

Helen had until now not yet fully understood the meaning of words. When Anne led her to the water pump on 5 April 1887, all that was about to change.

As Anne pumped the water over Helen’s hand , Anne spelled out the word water in the girl’s free hand. Something about this explained the meaning of words within Helen, and Anne could immediately see in her face that she finally understood.

Helen later recounted the incident:

“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honey-suckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.”

 Anarchic Hand Syndrome

There has been some debate over at Methods of Projection which followed after my recent response which I posted here as: What the Right Hand Giveth… . Much of the discussion was been over whether Anarchic Hand Syndrome constitutes a counterfactual example for the absurdity Wittgenstein proposed when imagining whether my right hand can give my left hand money.

This is the Wittgenstein illustration:

Why can’t my right hand give my left hand money? — My right hand can put it into my left hand. My right hand can write a deed of gift and my left hand a receipt — But the further practical consequences would not be those of a gift. When the left had has taken the money from the right, etc., we shall ask: “Well, and what of it? ” And the same could be asked if a person had given himself a private defintion of a word: I mean, if he has said the word to himself and at the same time has directed himself to a sensation

PI section 268

And this is an article detailing some of the aspects of the syndrome, in which a woman is described as combating the rude behavior of her own hand: “The Anarchic Hand” by Sergio Della Sala. The conversation has gone back and forth, and I believe that at minimum we have established conditions under which it is not inconsequential to say that one’s own hand is acting with intentions of its own, and thus that Wittgenstein appeal to absurdity is at least in some sense constrained.

But really, aside from being able to detect the possibility of coherence where Wittgenstein can only see absurdity – that is, the ability to see an answer to “Well, and what of it?” – the closer question is, even if there are circumstances which MAY arise which indeed would support the meaningfulness of my right hand giving my left hand a gift of money, does this rarity have anything to do with Wittgenstein’s larger point, that the apparent absurdity of the former supports the apparent absurdity, or really, inconsequentialness of the latter (a person who gives himself a private definition of a word, and directs himself to a sensation). It amounts to nothing. It is mere gears turning emptily.

The first that is to be done in regards to the larger point is that if indeed there is a logical connection between Wittgenstein’s illustration and his private language argument, then it would seem that even his iron-clad PL argument is condition-dependent. There may indeed arise (or even may have already arisen) occasions where in it could make sense to say that one has given oneself a private definition of a word (directed to a sensation). (If there is no logical connection between the illustration and the argument, then perhaps we can say that his illustration was poorly chosen, or non-substantive, something with rhetorical flair.)

But let us think about it. What would make substantive the attribution of agency to one’s own body part, as in the case of AHS, is a certain kind of differential. The explanatory behavior of one’s current experiences do not map up with those required for a body part. What I am experiencing and doing is not what that hand, MY hand, is doing. Is there such a differential possible with the self-definition of words, in particular how they might refer to sensations? One can imagine that there might be. There can be a valence to conscious description (and one need not be a Malebranchean for it to be so).

If I have a sensation at time T1, and thus name it at T2, is this an entirely circular, empty operation? Are there not two maps, one experienced (the ground) and one reflective (mapping) which are placed in reference to each other? If at time T3 I have a sensation which I deem to be the same as T1, and recall the name of T2, summoning it again at T4, why is this an empty relation (like checking multiple copies of the same edition of a newpaper Wittgenstein wants to say)? Surely it is recursive, but its very recursivity helps define its coherence. That is, my reflective coordination of repetitions of experiences with a causal understanding of the world, helps me, privately, as a organism, to orient myself in the world. One can say that one is “naming” sensations (if one wants to fantasize about languages in a thought experiment), or one can simply say that one is recognizing them. The point would be that there is a fundamental coherence established through the recognition of past states and understanding them to be caused by events in the world. Such internal checking of experienced regularities (patterns) against regularities in the world (patterns) which may cause them, makes up a great deal of our mental life. Of course, whether these differential mental events amount to language, private or otherwise, all depends on how you want to define language (and many would like to restrict the definition of language a great deal so as to make “mental content” something that one can philosophize about).

The “Returning” Thought

Did Helen Keller have a “word” for water before she learned her first word, the word “water”? It seems she experienced that she had the “thought”, as she says that when she learned the word, as water was rushing over her one hand and her teacher signing into her other hand, she had the experience of a RETURNING thought, something she had forgotten:

“Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me”

Was it returning from where it could not have been? What it a trick of her mind, prepositing the illusion of a past presence. Or did Helen Keller not know that thought is impossible for those without language, according to some rather rigorous philosphers? What is the status of Helen Keller’s returning thought?

Was this differential between the past thought and the new thought, coalesed around the living experience of water on her hand, and grafted onto a word, a differential any way related to the differential a woman with anarchic hand syndrome experiences when her hand acts without her intention, only then subsumed in a larger, wider circle, in which her her body is uniquely divided? Is private a fluxuating state or ascrption, something that describes a relative recursivity that is also open to the world, something akin to the autopoietic distinction between organizational closure and operational openness? Can consciousness itself assume an organizational  closure of reflection (mapping) upon events, mental events, to which it is open? Would the woman who experiences anarchic hand syndrome be organizationally and kinesthetically closed as to her experiences of her arm, but in terms of her conscious judments of intentions have a map (judgments) of her body’s actions which does not exactly overlay it? For some intents and purposes, that is my arm and hand. For others it certainly is not. A vector divides the organizational loop.

I suspect that something of this rift also runs through Wittgenstein’s prohibition of a private language (though it is an argument that I take as significant for what it says about justification and public discourse through criteria sharing). Much as his illustration of the privacy of hand shows itself to be quite a bit more context dependent, and historically contingent, than the impression of a logical absurdity he tried to suggest, so too, privacy and self-mapping involve differentials of self and selves which are not simply reducible to grammar.

 

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